A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

One family's experiment living on a food-stamp budget


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Like Birthday Presents

I’ve been meaning to write this one for several weeks, but, frankly, every time the big bags of food arrive from the food bank, I get so excited that I forget to log them in. After six weeks of the SNAP discipline, I’m, well, maybe a little more disciplined. So before we tucked in, here is the gift of food that arrived Monday evening:

Contents of this weeks gift of food.

Contents of this weeks gift of food.

This is good stuff. Really good stuff! Apples, pears, grapes, mangoes, bell peppers, onions, potatoes, tuna for a little protein, bread… Really good bread with a bunch of whole grains and organic flour (which is more important to the critters that live in and around the field than it is to me) and seeds and dried fruity things. Pita chips (a treat for Laurel), cookies (a treat for David), and cereal in little containers (a treat for Rose). Some couscous,  which will add some much appreciated diversity to our starch. I’m already fantasizing about mixing in some chickpeas and some of those peppers and onions and some garlic. I might even have the nub of a cucumber in the fridge that could be added to the mix. No—dang—the children ate the cucumber nub.

You have seen the shopping bag through the eyes of gratitude.

Now how about my middle-class consumer eyes: Pears are a bit smooshy. Peppers are tired. Grapes are squishy and have a big fruit-fly party sign on them. We already talked about potatoes. You get the idea. These are items that supermarkets have decided are too far gone for people to buy so they send them to the food bank. What changed me from a savvy consumer of supermarket food to a mom who can overlook the flaws in fruit? Scarcity? After six weeks we are desperate for stuff we haven’t been able to afford to buy? I think it is probably related to our six weeks of SNAP challenge. But the real question is how is it related?

Apologies in advance for not digging deeper into the science here.

Melanie Greenburg has recently written about the psychology of scarcity. She posits that deprivation can lead to feelings of anxiety or anger. We become obsessed with the things that feel scarce.  And we operate in emergency mode—needing to control every molecule so as not to run out of whatever is scarce. Scarcity causes us to make impulsive decisions that focus only on the short term. We become paralyzed when confronted with long-term planning. And an abundance of actual research shows that we actually get dumber. Who knew?

Greenburg concludes that practicing gratitude is one of the proven escapes for scarcity thinking. Interesting that was one of the first places I went, rather than something that needed to be consciously cultivated. But wait! Was it? As I read back on my earliest posts, I remember feeling quite a bit of anxiety. Could we actually complete the SNAP Challenge? Would I still be able to afford the organic milk that I felt was so important? Would the children accept the plastic taste so that we could afford the organic milk? Six weeks later: Yes, yes and no, although they complain less frequently.

But then the first gift of food arrived. We were only in our second week and I was feeling like a month more was a very long time. I picked up the bags and it was like opening birthday presents. Okay, you are saying, she has completely cracked. But really. Think about it. The fun of birthday presents comes from three key features: 1) they are for you because you are special; 2) as you anticipate opening them, you don’t know what’s inside but you know that it’s probably good; and 3) if birthday presents are well selected, you will continue to enjoy them beyond the surprise of their opening. Now consider those food bank bags.

They are just for me because I’m special. In this case, the bags came from my friend Margie, who each week as selected some stuff from the food bank leftovers and made sure they got to me somehow. She once drove them all the way to Geneva, she has dropped them at the gym for us to pick up, and she has remember to bring them ot our weekly meetings. That’s effort. One doesn’t make that kind of effort unless they care and that felt really nice. Sure, the food itself helped, but the caring was the seed of my feeling of gratitude about it. BONUS: I got to share this gift with my family.

I don’t know what’s inside but it’s probably good. The first part of this is just the surprise. It’s always fun to look into the Christmas stocking or take an early peek at the buffet table. But beyond that, I know that Margie will be on the lookout for good stuff like veggies and crackers—just the things we had to take off of our shopping list for Lenten SNAP Challenge.

I can continue to enjoy them beyond the surprise of opening. It always took  several days for us to nosh our way through the weekly bags and every time I took out another item to use, I relived both the gift and the surprise for another moment. BONUS: The food was nourishing and tasty!

BONUS: Birthdays only come once a year. The food bank bags turned up weekly! And that frequency only heightened the gratitude somehow.

So maybe my response didn’t arise from the psychology of scarcity. Except that momentary lapse into failed long-term planning. Rather, it was like a weekly birthday. An opportunity to feel gifted and cared for. Who knew that such a small thing could transform so completely?


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The Gift of Food

Feeding charities are a favorite for our family. We are fans of FoodLink and chip in when they have fund-raisers at the market. We also like to contribute non-perishables directly when we can. There is something tangible about carrying a few cans or boxes of something in to the offering basket. Jesus was not clear on a lot of contemporary social issues, but feeding the hungry was an unambiguous imperative (e.g., Matthew 25:35-40).

So with the tables turned (sort of), I was overwhelmed when several bags of left overs and throw aways from a local soup kitchen turned up at my house. After a busy Week 1, we were feeling a bit tight. This gift liberated our budget. It also delighted the girls (a box of cookies), David (a box of Triscuits), and me (mountains of lettuce) with a wealth of special treats that we had imagined were gone for the 40 days.

What was it like for a stubbornly self-reliant New Englander to accept the charity of others? First of all, my gracious friend saved me the social embarrassment of actually going to the food pantry. I suspect that she sensed that I wouldn’t, primarily because I am not really needy. This is a Lenten experiment by a fully employed and well-off family. I would be—and am to a degree—guilty of taking from those who really need. The dispensation here is that she brought me what had been left behind by their guests, and the wilty lettuce, tired broccoli and spotted peppers would likely have been composted. Secondarily, I wouldn’t have gone because that’s not what stubbornly self-reliant New Englanders do. That’s the sin of pride—more later. But I still feel a little guilty.

Why? Because the slightly tired veggies, sack of potatoes, jar of peanut butter and can of tuna feel like indescribably abundance. As I unpacked, I imagined all the meals that I could make and crossed things off of our meager shopping list. I had wanted potatoes for a Kenyan dish our Lenten study suggested that we try—here they were and more! I had been craving salad—more lettuce than we can eat in several days! And there’s the fish for that healthful diet. It was probably the most excited I’ve been unpacking a grocery sack—ever. I’ve never been much for the God of magic tricks—loaves and fish and all that (Mark 8:1-9). But I do believe—perhaps more than ever—in a God whose hands are the hands of my friend who drove 34 miles round trip to bring us food. Not because we really needed it but because it is part of our spiritual growth and a way for her to minister to us as God’s hands in the world.

So there is the spiritual lesson. But I still feel guilty. Why? Because it somehow feels wrong to be gushing with the gratitude of abundance in the midst of Lent and in the midst of a hungry world. But maybe that’s the point: Gratitude. I  have prayed a little more mindfully and with greater joy this week.

We receive this food in gratitude to all beings who have helped to bring it to our table. And vow to respond, in turn, to those in need with wisdom and compassion.